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The wholesale fibs party and its propaganda

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(This article was first published by Vijayvaani and is available here.)

The Congress disinformation machine is up and running so hard that now it’s reinventing economics. An article in The Hindustan Times, dated Jan. 15, 2019 on the wholesale price index (WPI), with a wild headline, “Worst price slump in 18 years shows scale of farm crisis”, shows the Congress-plus-opposition agitprop firing on all cylinders. The trouble with this shoddy report and its very obvious promoters is that the wholesale price index (a) hasn’t behaved the way they claim it has (b) is not an indicator of the income health of the kisan household.

These minor inconveniences did not stop The Hindustan Times report from pronouncing that “This financial year, 2018-19 could end up being the worst year for farm incomes in almost two decades, government data indicates in a revelation that emphasises the gravity of the ongoing agrarian crisis”. The government data cited is the WPI which, as the name makes clear, is an index of the change in prices at the level of bulk sale, which for primary agricultural produce is at the mandi, or “farm gate”, as this reporter calls it fashionably. “The WPI sub-component for primary food articles has been negative for six consecutive months beginning July 2018. This means their prices are falling,” says the report.

This is false. Here are the WPI numbers for the category ‘primary articles – food articles’, for the months July to December (the latest month) 2018: July 144.8, August 144.8, September 144.5, October 145.9, November 146.1 and December 144.0 – where is the “negative for six consecutive months”?

Even the simple math the report claims to have done – based on a misreading of the WPI – is wrong. “The WPI sub-component for food components was -0.1% in December. It was -2.1%, -4%, -0.2%, -1.4% and -3.3% in the preceding five months,” says the report. Also false. The sequence of change, from December running backwards to July, is -2.1, 0.2, 1.4, -0.3, 0 and 3. And the change is a number, not a per cent, because the WPI and its components are indices.

But the HT report ploughs on unmindful: “The last time WPI for primary food articles showed negative annual growth for two consecutive quarters was in 1990. The disinflation in farm prices has also led to a collapse in nominal farm incomes, which was last seen in 2000-01.”

So many non-sequiturs in two sentences. A sequence of WPI numbers over several months is not an indicator of annual growth or contraction for what is being measured. As any Food Corporation of India warehouse manager could have told the reporter, what is indexed is the change.

Did the newspaper scrutinise WPI data back until 1990? If it did – and if the sponsors of this “data revelation” did – they would not have failed to notice that the current WPI series has the base year (from which index numbers of 697 different components are calculated) of 2011-12. The previous base year was 2004-05, before that it was 1993-94 and before even that it was 1981-82.

What happened instead is that The Hindustan Times was told to reference the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy which maintains the WPI data back to the 1981-82 series, but has shown a chart with the news report that draws the 2004-05 series. The rider while comparing indices from different series – that they be recalculated with a specific linking factor that makes two series intelligible to each other – is not mentioned at all by the reporter nor by those interviewed by the paper, and they are, in order of appearance: Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University; Niranjan Rajadyaksha, research director and senior fellow at IDFC Institute, Mumbai; Praveen Chakravarty, chairman of the Congress data analytics department. And last, BJP spokesperson Gopal Agarwal.

Their quotes, and the confused graphs thrown in, are meant to prop up the sagging storyline – that the Doubling Farmers’ Income programme of the BJP is not working, that there is ‘agrarian distress’ all over India (the reason given for the INC-Left-NGO morcha to Delhi in November 2018), that the boost to minimum support prices are not working.

“To be sure,” the report says, so that we get the point that the data certainly does not make, “the current crisis in farming is related more to a crash in farm prices rather than output growth.” And immediately adds that in July 2018, “the central government increased the minimum support prices (MSPs) of 14 crops to give farmers a 50% return over their cost of production”. In fact, the MSP was raised so that it is now no less than 50% above the cost of production. Several crops have their MSPs pegged at 60% and even 70%.

Not content with the bashing of the BJP government by those the reporter has interviewed, the newspaper then brings in still another angle, GDP (gross domestic product) data. “That disinflation in farm-gate prices has put a squeeze on farm incomes can be seen from a comparison of growth in agricultural GDP at current and constant prices,” blithely says the report.

“The first advance estimates of GDP figures for 2018-19, which were released by the Central Statistical Office (CSO) last week, show that the difference between current and constant price growth in Gross Value Added (GVA) in agriculture and allied activities was -0.1 percentage point. This differential is 4.8 percentage points for overall GVA.”

It is surprising that The Hindustan Times appears to have no access to any of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s agronomists, who could have been asked to clarify what the connection is, if any, between GDP growth rates, gross value added and the income of a kisan household in any of our 350 (and rising) districts that produce food for markets near and far. What matters to that household is the income realised for crop grown and sold, and this is where eNam, the electronic national agriculture market, is making a difference with, till date, 585 markets in 16 states and 2 union territories being integrated.

But the newspaper wants to press every available economics button in its frantic attempt to convince its readers that there is an agrarian crisis being engineered by the BJP government. And so it enlists the Reserve Bank of India, too, claiming that “The failure of MSP hikes to arrest the decline in farm-gate prices was taken note of by RBI as well”. What has been quoted from the RBI monetary policy committee meeting held during 3-5 December 2018 does not say so at all.

“The prices of several food items are at unusually low levels and there is a risk of sudden reversal, especially of volatile perishable items,” is how the RBI has been quoted. And what this means is that the consumer of food could find the weekly food bill rising; as with the other crutches this report leans on heavily, the RBI has not said what The Hindustan Times tells readers it has. The risk of the price of some food items rising is not a “decline in farm-gate prices”.

Likewise, the second quote from the RBI meeting – “available data suggest that the effect of revision in minimum support prices (MSPs) announced in July on prices has been subdued so far” – is an encouragement, far from the burden it is made out to be by the report.

Typically, a rise in the MSP would have been transferred, at least some if not most of it, by the layers of crop collection, retail and distribution, to the consumer. This transfer, said the RBI, has been subdued, which shows that the measures taken by the government to cut out profiteering middlemen are working.

Six months in 1990 are not six months in 2018. Gross value added whether at constant or current prices is in no way a measure of income for harvested crop a kisan earns at a mandi or through eNam. These and every other trick used in this report show why it is a shabby, confused, hodge-podge of opposition party innuendo that is meant to ride on data which the reading public scarcely notice. Except, when it is noticed, the whiz-bang falls flat.

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Written by makanaka

January 26, 2019 at 08:38

A scientist recants, or can he really?

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M S Swaminathan today (right), and during his fieldwork years (left). Photos from MSS Research Foundation

M S Swaminathan during his fieldwork years, and today. Photos from MSS Research Foundation

During the dialogue between Maitreyi and the sage Yajnavalkya, the great sage in one of his answers to her difficult series of questions, explains what validity is. Yajnavalkya said that man-made law is temporal law, valid only as long as people who are concerned with it agree that it is valid; when not agreed upon, its validity ceases.

In one of his 1934 lectures J B S Haldane, one of the early 20th century’s founding evolutionary geneticists, and a political leftist, observed: “Put a Jersey cow and a South Africa scrub cow in an English meadow. The Jersey will give far more milk. Put them on the veldt, and the Jersey will give less milk. Indeed she will probably die.”

At 93, one of our scientists who is known for knowing about crops, is I am sure familiar with both, for he should have passed into the stage of sanyasa some years ago, in which stage he would profitably contemplate lessons from these and other thinkers. But the scientist seems strangely reluctant to do so, having had fashioned for himself a vanaprastha which resembles a field biology laboratory.

It has been fashioned for himself not by the kisans of India who are grateful for having carried out the results of his researches, but by the industries of food and the merchants of the technological cornucopia that surrounds all that we call food today. It is in short, a very elaborate golden handshake whose fine print contains a few tasks which Padma Shri Padma Bhushan Padma Vibhushan Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has been entrusted with.

If he disregards the fine print, even today, he is scolded and upbraided by those half and even a third his age, for he is still governed by the proctors of industrial agriculture who pay not the slightest attention to the glittering heap of accolades and awards (73 honorary doctorates at last count) that accompany his name. And this is what happened when M S Swaminathan, as co-author of a rather reflective paper in the journal Current Science, questioned the sustainability, safety, and regulation of genetically modified crops.

Cows returning from their evening grazing, upland Tamil Nadu.

With that paper, he strayed across the Yajnavalkya boundary that marks out ‘validity’. He ceased being the English meadow in Haldane’s example and became instead the south African veldt. These are transgressions not permitted by the fine print that accompanies, along with awards and accolades, all scientists whose practice of science is determined by industry and foreign policy, as food and the cultivation of crop has been since the European monarchies funded the annexation of territories not their own to convert into colonies.

It is possible that Swaminathan and his co-author, P C Kesavan (a researcher at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, which is the elder scientist’s field biology lab) were actuated by considerations other than scientific.

What might these considerations have been? First, political, because from around mid-year in 2017, a broad front of diverse groups – the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee – with several of its constituents claiming to represent kisan organisations and associations in different states, others including activist organisations protesting genetically engineered crops, have been launching marches and agitations against the NDA government using agriculture and kisan welfare as their platform.

The connection, between this episodic haranguing on the streets (not in fields) and Swaminathan is that he supplied, through the recommendations of the National Commission of Farmers (in 2004), their primary talking points today. Even today, his is seen as India’s most authoritative academic imprimatur on a campaign, programme or policy about sustainable agriculture.

It is a remarkable balance to have maintained for a man who helped usher into India an alien, short-stemmed, lab-tinkered, input-hungry rice variety to replace – with disastrous long-term effects on our agro-biodiversity and soil health – our own magnificent families of rice.

His second consideration for doing so is undoubtedly a blend – an academic setting right of the record, and an acknowledgement of the soaring unsustainability of industrial, fossil fuel-driven, retail oriented agriculture that relies on biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Any field researcher who tramped past rice seedling nurseries in the mid-1960s would absorb sustainability in all aspects of crop cultivation, sustainability should infuse his every utterance.

Picking cotton in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Bt cotton remains the only legally cultivated GM crop in India

But when Swaminathan was turned towards genetics, and away from the science of selection which our kisans have practiced ever since (and likely before) Rishi Parashar composed his smrti on the subject, he was parted forever from the simple essence of sustainability. Yet now there loom before the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, of which Swaminathan has been an éminence grise, the effects of climate change and the demands of the sustainable development goals, and modern agriculture cannot comply with even the skeletal interim standards of these goals.

For all his misdemeanours since the 1960s – including the unforgiveable plundering of our Central Rice Research Institute’s extremely valuable varieties from Odisha and Chhattisgarh, to stock the gene banks of the International Rice Research Institute with – I doubt that Swaminathan cares to be remembered by the generations to come in India as one of those who bestowed scientific legitimacy upon an agro-ecologically illiterate programme, the Green Revolution.

The lorry-load of awards he has accumulated over four decades have for the most part been supplied by the industry and nation-state powers that make food and its supply an economic weapon or a foreign policy instrument. That makes him not a visionary scientist receiving the admiration of multitudes (which the Padma awards were supposed to represent) but a paid general upon whose person battlefield decorations are pinned every now and then to please the troops.

He made his Faustian bargain nigh a half-century ago, but if a retreat into sanyasa and a twilight of less untruth than what he has guarded was Swaminathan’s wish, it is not one he will have granted. For swift and pitiless came the censure of his paper in Current Science. “The specific instances where results are selectively omitted, selectively represented or misrepresented are rife,” grated out K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, in his note to Swaminathan.

“Indeed, the bulk of the scientific points made in this part of the review have been raised previously and have been scientifically discredited widely and one has to only study the literature to see this.” Others, who have made similar bargains, on terms more demanding, were much more unkind and derisive.

The co-authors have been attacked for having “relied on papers and statements by individual scientists that run against the collective weight of peer-reviewed data and in-depth assessments by respected scientific organisations such as the Royal Society (UK), the National Academy of Sciences (US), the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority”. In short, for having deviated from the industrial-agri-biotech party line the international GMO politburo must enforce.

And so the elder scientist had to disavow his recantation, first to the government man: “There has been some misunderstanding about my views to ensure sustainable productivity by avoiding the spread of greed revolution resulting in the undermining of the long term production potential.” And likewise in a letter (on his foundation’s website) to the biotech industry’s army of invigilators the world over: “I wish to conclude by reiterating my total commitment and support to modern technologies including genetic modification and gene editing.”

This episode has shown that in some matters there can be no renunciation. Sri Krishna explained to Arjuna that under his direction and control, nature brings out this mighty universe of living and non-living beings and “thus does the wheel of this world revolve”. Fatefully, it seems that a sanyasa spent in contemplation of this wheel will elude M S Swaminathan, who once knew rice fields.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2019 at 09:14